THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) – Still chilling after all these years

 

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The following is my entry in The Outer Space in Film Blogathon, being hosted by Debra at Moon in Gemini from Apr. 13-15, 2018. Click on the above banner to read bloggers’ take on space-based cinema, factual and fictional!

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The wonderful thing about the magnificent sci-fi film The Day the Earth Stood Still is that it’s about so much more than it’s about.

On the surface, it’s about Klaatu (Michael Rennie), a visitor from a planet a few million miles away, who comes to warn of the Earth’s potential destruction if its inhabitants do not give up their aggressive ways.

It’s a simple enough message, but right from the start, poor Klaatu can’t catch a break. He tries to give a peace present to nearby soldiers, who respond by shooting him. He tries to tell the President’s rep to arrange a meeting between all world leaders, but the leaders won’t agree to such a meeting unless it’s on their home turf. Then he tries to move among the citizens to learn their ways and gets sold down the river by a macho guy who wants to impress his girlfriend (Patricia Neal), who ends up siding with Klaatu.

What the movie is really about is fear of strangers. It was, after all, made at the beginning of the Korean War conflict and during HUAC hearings, both of which were intended to root out “reds” or “pinks” (i.e., people who don’t think like us). And whenever Klaatu tries to speak of his belief in non-aggression, he gets shot down, figuratively or literally. The movie’s message is more timely than ever: Why are we so afraid of peace, anyway?

Michael Rennie was a British actor, unknown in the U.S. at the time of filming. He was chosen so that, instead of seeing a famous movie star come out of a spaceship, you’d see a believable alien. Rennie, Neal, and everyone else in this fine movie pull off the acid test: Sci-fi motifs and dialogue that could have been laughable in other hands (watch Plan 9 from Outer Space if you’re ever looking for a hoot) are completely plausible here.

Kudos are also due to Leo Tover’s glistening cinematography and Bernard Herrmann’s eerie score, both of which contribute considerably to the movie’s heightened atmosphere. Don’t watch this one alone, or in a paranoid state.

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PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959) and STRANGE BREW (1983) – The End of the World for Dummies

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The following is my entry in The End of the World Blogathon, being co-hosted by this blog and The Midnite Drive-In from March 30 to April 1, 2018. Click on the above banner, and read bloggers’ takes on a variety of movies with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic themes!

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There are a lot of great movies whose end-of-the-world themes have inspired food for thought. But what happens when filmmakers’ intentions (or pretensions) outstrip their talent? There are probably a dozen Robot Monsters for every Dr. Strangelove.

So for this blogathon, I thought I’d take a look at what happens when an apocalypse-minded filmmaker with minimal talent gets behind the camera. My first example is fictional (though all too plausible); the second example is a very real (and bad) piece of cinematic history.

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Bob and Doug McKenzie, “Mutants of 2051 A.D.”

Quick comedy history lesson: “SCTV” (1977-1984) was a half-hour, “Saturday Night Live”-type spoof of TV and movies that, even though its roots were in the Second City improv troupe in Chicago, was taped in Canada. When the show became popular, Canadian TV execs insisted that each episode must contain two minutes of Canadian-based content.

From this dry idea were borne Bob and Doug McKenzie (Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas), the dim-witted sibling hosts of “The Great White North,” a weekly show in which they shared tips on the best way to cook back-bacon, and how to get liquor store refunds by sticking a live mouse in an empty beer bottle.

As with many “SNL” stars, Moranis and Thomas couldn’t resist expanding their brief sketches into a feature-length film. Although it later segues into a formulaic plot, Strange Brew (1983) begins with a “Great White North” sketch in which Bob declares, “We made a movie, eh?” With that, the duo show us their movie, an ultra-low budget sci-film that runs for an excruciating minute-and-a-half before, happily, the film breaks.

If you’re not already familiar with Bob & Doug or “SCTV,” it’s hard to say how this mini-epic will play out of context. IMHO, it’s a perfect depiction of every movie fan who ever had too much time on his hands and got hold of a movie camera.

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Plan 9 from Outer Space

Plan 9 is the immortal choice of bad-film lovers everywhere. And yet, it’s so entertainingly bad that one almost wants to believe that this is exactly what producer-writer-director Edward D. Wood Jr. had in mind all along. There have been far more sincere films, with far bigger budgets, that ended up with the same results as this movie. (If memory serves, one pundit referred to John Travolta’s 2000 pet sci-fi project Battlefield Earth as “Plan Ten from Outer Space.”)

The premise is that some outer-space beings (including future TV director Joanna Lee) have launched eight previously botched attempts to claim Earth for their own, and evidently the only plan that will get it right is to bring some corpses from a San Fernando Valley cemetery back to life. And yet, if the key sign of a sci-fi film’s success is that it successfully establishes an otherworldly environment, then Plan 9 succeeds in spades. The film is filled to capacity with:

* double-take-inspiring dialogue (“He’s dead. Murdered. And somebody’s responsible!”).

* non-existent continuity — as a writer once said about Leo McCarey’s work in the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup, if two shots don’t match, Wood’s answer is to throw them together and let them fight it out.

* strangeness accepted as normality. Prime example: Washed-up star Bela Lugosi died three days into filming and was replaced by Wood’s chiropractor, who was taller than Lugosi and who “doubled” for him simply by masking his face with a black cape.

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And yet, many latter-day movies and TV shows ask us to accept just such incongruities in the name of entertainment. For example, we’re meant to accept a bare desk with a goose-necked lamp as being the office of a Pentagon official. Pretty silly. And yet, is NASA’s headquarters conveyed any more realistically on “I Dream of Jeannie”? And any number of sitcoms have dialogue that doesn’t sound any more “life-like” than the stuff that pops from the mouths of Wood’s actors.

It takes a special sense of mise-en-scene to present a facade so weird that it takes on a life of its own. For that alone, Plan 9 from Outer Space deserves its spot in film history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CONTACT (1997) – Jodie Foster makes us believe

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After seeing Jodie Foster wasted in piffle such as Sommersby and Maverick, I worried that the gloriously intelligent actress of The Accused and Little Man Tate was gone for good. Happily, she made her triumphant return in a vehicle worthy of her extraordinary gifts: Robert Zemeckis’ Contact.

Based on Carl Sagan’s novel, the movie sports what was then the latest in cutting-edge special effects (including a visit from Pres. Bill Clinton, a la Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump). But it hardly matters, because as Ellie Arroway, Foster is the movie’s best special effect. Whether she’s in a love scene or on a trip to outer space, there’s not a moment where you don’t believe Foster is really living it.

Ellie has been sending radio signals into space since she was a kid — first on ham radios, then later on satellite dishes. She’s not sure where or why she’s sending them — she’s just driven to do it. But as an adult astronomer, she’s thwarted at every turn by David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), her former mentor. When Ellie’s work yields nothing, Drumlin shuts off her funding; when Ellie’s signals start getting replies, he hogs all of the credit.

We’ve read for years about smart females who know the answers in math class but, when they raise their hands, are overlooked in favor of the male students. Those males grow up to be David Drumlin. Drumlin is dashing, knows just enough to get by, and has all of the smart answers (just not the right ones). And for a while, the story appears to be a contest between the outspoken woman and Mr. All-American.

But Contact never gets that cliched — its twists are fresh and entirely plausible. It even takes on some philosophical issues, and happily, it does not cop out on any of them. Suffice to say, the outcome is a refreshing antidote to no-brainers such as Men in Black (which was released shortly before Contact), where anything alien exists only to be zapped.

And for once, Zemeckis’ ensemble work overshadows his effects stunts. Foster, Skerritt, McConaughey, James Woods, and Angela Bassett all shine. Among the movie’s many surprises, one of its nicest was the movie debut of young Jena Malone. As the young Ellie, she makes you see how the ache in this inquisitive child’s heart turns her into the ultimate stargazer.

Contact makes you believe in its miracles — or at least, in the miracle of Jodie Foster’s intuitive acting. Pragmatic Ellie comes to experience a revelation. And thanks to Foster, so do we.

 

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) – An empire of movie riches

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IMHO, in the Star Wars universe, The Empire Strikes Back is the one that sticks. Twenty-five years after its first release, I re-viewed it with my then-8-year-old son as part of our “prep” course for the final Star Wars entry Revenge of the Sith. And everything that originally was emotionally satisfying to me remains intact.

Until I saw Empire, I hadn’t fallen for Star Wars the way millions of moviegoers had. It seemed passable as a “Flash Gordon”-type time-killer, but not worth falling all over. But Empire is the real deal. Right from the opening scenes, it has a different tone that its chipper predecessor. The “Rebels,” far from cheering over their initial victory in the first movie, are now hunkered in an endless snowland, trying to continue their battle and stay alive at the same time. Then our hero, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), gets womped by the love child of the Abominable Snowman, and suddenly we realize that the good guys are going to have to deal with some real issues.

This movie has it all: eye-popping scenery, fully developed characters who feel both joy and pain (who can forget Chewbacca’s wail every time his friends have a major setback?), and most memorably, believable romantic dialogue between prissy Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and roguish Han Solo (Harrison Ford). SW creator George Lucas has been roundly criticized for the stilted romantic talk in “Episodes II and III”; he would have done well to go back and study the simple yet effective repartee in this movie.

This is also the movie that introduced sage Yoda, who at this point was not the animatronic whiz of the “prequel” trilogy but was initially a senior-citizen Muppet with Frank Oz’s hand up his behind. But even with that drawback, Yoda was as believable and powerful as his later, more youthful CGI version. (That scene where he pulls the spaceship out of the pond is still goose-bump-inspiring.)

Of course, this “galaxy far, far away” is nothing without uber-villain Darth Vader (voice by James Earl Jones, body by David Prowse), and Empire makes the most of the good- and badwill built up by the Man in Black in his first outing. He finally gets his own theme song (“The Imperial Theme”), and it only does him justice. And if, by some miracle of ignorance, you don’t know the major plot twist in this movie, it will blow you away as quickly as Luke loses a major appendage.

The best element of this movie is that it takes time for the “little” moments, such as when Han Solo can’t get the Millenium Falcon running until he hits the “dashboard,” or that great moment where Han’s carbonited body slams into the frame with hands up, as though he’s trying to break out of his enforced prison. (Funny thing is, before he got frozen, his hands were bound behind his back. But when that body slams onto the screen with such urgency, logic takes wing.)

Any box-office smash that can leave so many major plot points hanging at movie’s end has to be some kind of triumph. Until Anakin Skywalker devolved into Darth Vader at the end of SithThe Empire Strikes Back was truly the gold standard for this series.

 

 

#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., May 21: UNKNOWN WORLD (1951)

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You gotta love any movie that starts right off predicting the imminent demise of mankind. In this case, the predictor is brilliant scientist Dr. Jeremiah Morley (Victor Kilian, a quarter-century away from his memorable TV turn as “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman’s” flasher-grandfather). Since nuclear war is right on the verge of destroying us all, there’s obviously only one solution: Drill a hole straight to the center of the Earth and look for an alternative living environment there. (We all remember how well that drilling-to-the-Earth’s-core idea went in Crack in the Earth, don’t we, #SatMat-ters?)

The crew for this journey consists of Dr. Morley, five other male scientists, and the inevitable token female scientist (Marilyn Nash, slumming after having appeared with Charlie Chaplin in Monsieur Verdoux). And the machine that they’re traveling in, the Cyclotram — how surprisingly phallic it is for 1951!

Anyway, it promises to be quite a journey, so join us this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EDT at Twitter.com!

 

 

 

#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., Apr. 30: THEM! (1954)

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After two weeks’ hiatus from #SatMat, I am tanned, rested, and ready to show another B-movie gem. This week, the gem is Them!

Atomic testing seems to have done for 1950’s movies that the Nazis did for 1940’s flicks: Provide the most convenient, generic villain you could ask for. Just plug it into any plot hole, and voila — instant drama! In this instance, atomic bombs set off the in the New Mexico desert appear to have turned ants into genetically mutated monsters. (When you think about the Southwestern desert, are ants the first thing that come to mind? Wouldn’t giant snakes or scorpions have been more likely?)

As if the premise weren’t delicious enough, the casting is to die for. James Whitmore is the first actor to appear on-screen, as a cop who sets the movie’s entire plot in motion. James Arness, as a fair but firm FBI agent, was seen by John Wayne in this movie, which led to Wayne helping to cast Arness in TV’s long-running Western “Gunsmoke.” Add Edmund Gwenn (Santa Claus himself from Miracle on 34th Street) as an avuncular entomologist, and you’ve just died and gone to B-Movie Heaven!

So join us on Twitter.com this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EDT, and bring plenty of snacks…but don’t leave a lot of sugar lying around!

 

#SatMat Live Tweet movie for Sat., Feb. 27: EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958)

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How does a single, abnormally-sized spider turn up in a random cave for no reason? How is it that, after the spider has been knocked out with poison, rock-and-roll music brings it back to life? And worst of all, how can they name a movie Earth vs. the Spider when it’s not an entire planet that’s being threatened but merely a nondescript, white-bread town that probably deserves to be obliterated anyway?

These are just some of the many questions that won’t be answered this Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EST. Join us at Twitter.com and use the hashtag #SatMat to enjoy a movie you’ll never forget laughing at!